The Pragmatist

Recently, I was discussing the Obama Administration with an old friend. He comes at the question from the progressive side of politics and he was frustrated with the President’s 2010 performance. I recited the usual litany of accomplishments (healthcare; financial reform; DADT; START; etc) and expressed much more satisfaction with the year in review then did he. Finally, my friend looked at me with an admixture of surprise and disappointment and exclaimed: “Since when did you become such a darn pragmatist?”

I’ve been thinking since then about that question.  Since when did being a "pragmatist" become an indictment in American politics?  At the turn of the century the leading minds in America proudly proclaimed themselves Pragmatists.  William James in philosophy; John Dewey in education; Oliver Wendell Holmes in law; etc.  Rejecting the absolutism of 19th century thinking and the tyranny of social Darwinism, these men (and too few women) pioneered a philosophy of change and growth grounded in science and the fact that even the smallest organism in nature is either growing or dying.

The President was elected to bring change we can believe in. I think it’s highly revealing of a hardening of the attitudes in our politics that President Obama is pilloried for changing his position or approach. Change is neither good nor bad; it is ineluctable. Change shouldn’t be the condemnation of a politician. Pragmatism should be reinvested with the respect it once received.

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